The Call for Change: Women Speak Out on Sexualized Violence in South Africa

The tallies have been rising on women murdered on the streets of South Africa. From a country with a history of violence and suppression, the fight is nowhere finished. Multiday protests throughout major cities have brought the crisis to international attention. 

Protest drawing awareness to rape victims at University of Cape Town. Devin O’Donnell.

Protest drawing awareness to rape victims at University of Cape Town. Devin O’Donnell.

The brutal murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a University of Cape Town student who was raped and killed while at the post office is unfortunately not a standalone incident. Mrwetyana joined upwards of 30 women that had been murdered in August alone. This marks the highest rates gender-based violence the country has seen, in a month that is, ironically, also designated as the national awareness month for Women’s Rights. 

There are many reasons thought to be behind the high numbers. Culturally, it comes from a history of women being viewed as inferior and the belief that women must obey their husbands. In many parts of South Africa, there is a general acceptance of rape, including martial rape and gang rape, as not being seen as wrong. This has led to South Africa having the highest rate of domestic abuse in the world. Domestic abuse was only outlawed in 1998 and martial rape in 1993. A studied done by the South Africa Medical Research Council found that 50% of men have abused their partners. Most relevant to the recent murders, every six hours a partner kills their female counterpart and one in four men in South Africa have raped someone. 

Studies have also found that there are certain traits in men and women that can lead to a greater risk of abuse in the country. Men who have grown up with violence, without father figures, and who use alcohol are more likely to abuse. It is also tied to race and socioeconomic status, as women of color, who are unemployed, and/or are from rural communities are more likely to be victims. Psychological studies have found that domestic abuse is often used as a response to feeling powerless. Apartheid proved violence is successful as a means for control and left people with a lack of trust in the government. Men who feel helpless regress to using violence against their partners in an attempt to regain a sense of control and self-worth. They also have a lack of fear of being prosecuted due to flaws in the police system – which is legitimate when only 15% of perpetrators are convicted. 

The exceptionally high rates of HIV in South Africa pose an additional danger to rapes. The belief in a virgin cleansing myth, if you rape a virgin you will be cured of HIV, has led to high rates of abuse in children, with 50% of children being abused before they turn 18. Rates of sexual abuse have also been found to be exceptionally high in schools and often deters girls from pursuing education. Additionally, South Africa has increased rates of violence surrounding homophobia, with rates of “corrective rape” reaching 10 a week just in Cape Town. This mirrors statistics for gay black men. 

President Ramaphosa said that measures have to be taken now to address the femicide. He has proposed longer sentencing and introducing more sexual offence courts. With current rates of rape reporting lingering at 2%, there is a chance that this will cause little change. The women marching firmly believe that change is necessary, but will it be enough?





DEVIN O’DONNELL’s interest in travel was cemented by a multi-month trip to East Africa when she was 19. Since then, she has continued to have immersive experiences on multiple continents. Devin has written for a start-up news site and graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Neuroscience.

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5 Women to Listen to When Thinking About Climate Advocacy

Greta Thunberg commanded the world’s attention with the urgency of her words before the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, bringing to the forefront a conversation about the women who have been leading climate advocacy. While there are countless women who for decades have dedicated themselves to environmental activism, this article provides a shortlist of five women of all ages and walks of life who have promoted the common goal of a more sustainable world through their words and actions.

Dr. Sunita Nahrain presenting at the Stockholm Water Prize Symposium.  Stockholm International Water Institute . CC 2.0

Dr. Sunita Nahrain presenting at the Stockholm Water Prize Symposium. Stockholm International Water Institute. CC 2.0

Sunita Narain, India: The director of the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi, Nahrain has worked since the 1980s to build community partnerships focused on mitigating air pollution, as well as promoting food and water security. Nahrain has been a critical voice in the formation of climate policy in India, advising both the Environmental Pollution Authority for the National Capital Region, and a Joint Parliamentary Committee investigating pesticide contamination in foods. For her critical work Nahrain was awarded the World Water Prize in 2005, among numerous other honors throughout her career. 

Hindou Omaraou Ibrahim Speaking before the World Economic Forum.  World Economic Forum . CC 2.0

Hindou Omaraou Ibrahim Speaking before the World Economic Forum. World Economic Forum. CC 2.0

Hindou Omaraou Ibrahim, Chad: Ibrahim, a climatologist and environmental activist from Mbororo, Chad, has centered her work on the empowerment of indigenous women. She is the founder of the Association of Peul Women and Peoples of Chad, and was designated as the National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2017. Ibrahim has spearheaded 3D mapping projects of Chad’s Sahel region, the home of the Mbororo community. The mapping efforts are partnered with UNESCO and the government of Chad, and are collecting thorough data regarding indigenous subsistence farming and environmental concerns, especially the drying of Lake Chad. 

Casey Camp-Horinek, Wounded Knee AIM veterans.  Neeta Lind . CC 2.0

Casey Camp-Horinek, Wounded Knee AIM veterans. Neeta Lind. CC 2.0

Casey Camp-Horinek, United States: Camp-Horinek is a vocal environmental and indigenous rights activist on the behalf of the Ponca Nation, whose native land is located in the state of Oklahoma. Her advocacy deals directly with supporting grassroots activism against harmful industry practices such as fracking, and the construction of the Keystone XL natural gas pipeline. Camp-Horinek has dedicated herself to creating a platform for indigenous voices, serving as a board member for WECAN and presenting before the UN Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Shalvi Sakshi, Fiji: Sakshi, a twelve-year old climate activist from Bua, Fiji, served as the youngest panelist, then ten years old, for the 23rd Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC in November of 2017 in Bonn, Germany. Sakshi urged of the dangers of rising sea levels due to deforestation and industrial contribution to rising carbon dioxide emissions. Her message is one of empowerment, emphasizing that everyone maintains the capacity and obligation to improve his or her world.

Changhua Wu Speaking before an EV20 Shanghai Media Event.  The Climate Group . CC 2.0

Changhua Wu Speaking before an EV20 Shanghai Media Event. The Climate Group. CC 2.0

Changhua Wu, China: Wu is an environmental advocate and social entrepreneur, who serves as the founding CEO of the Beijing Future Innovation Center and as the China/Asia Region Director for the Jeremy Rifkin Office. Wu has contributed extensively to important strides in clean energy policy in China, and has been recognized globally for her impact in the lowering of China’s carbon footprint. Combining her extensive background in economics, environmental policy, and journalism studies, throughout her career Wu has tied together sustainable technology, social entrepreneurialism, and environmental policy. 






HALLIE GRIFFITHS is an undergraduate at the University of Virginia studying Foreign Affairs and Spanish. After graduation, she hopes to apply her passion for travel and social action toward a career in intelligence and policy analysis. Outside of the classroom, she can be found, quite literally, outside: backpacking, rock climbing, or skiing with her friends.

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Fighting to End Child Marriage in Lebanon

Ghassan Idriss knows firsthand the harmful effects of child marriage on society. Having married at a young age to a woman even younger than himself, Idriss and his wife faced struggles that so many other couples in his home country of Lebanon grapple with. Now, with three daughters of his own, Idriss is doing everything he can to educate those around him about the dangers of this antiquated institution. By hosting talks, he’s using his voice to spark change within his community.

The Women Taking on the Macho World of Mariachi

Mariachi is a folkloric tradition as macho as it is Mexican. Eight years ago, Mireya Ramos and Shae Fiol sought to up-end convention and founded Mariachi Flor de Toloache, New York City’s first all-female mariachi band. With their bandmates Julie Acosta and Eunice Aparicio, the musicians traded in traditional mariachi skirts for homemade suits and created an empowering space for women while staying true to the music and spirit of mariachi.

NEPAL: Kung Fu Nuns

This nunnery has an empowering claim to fame—it’s the only one in Nepal where the nuns practice martial arts. The nuns of the Buddhist Drukpa Order train three hours a day, and they break bricks with their bare hands. Heroes in the Himalayas, these strong women delivered supplies to hard-to-reach villages after an earthquake struck Kathmandu in 2015. The kung fu nuns have also taught self-defense classes for women and biked 14,000 miles to protest the human trafficking of women and girls.

A Crisis of Violence Pushes Honduran Women to the U.S. Border

For women facing rampant femicide and rape in Honduras, the risks of a treacherous trip across the border are minor compared to the dangers of remaining at home.

High rates of violence against women in Honduras has been attributed to a culture of machismo. Paul Lowry via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0

High rates of violence against women in Honduras has been attributed to a culture of machismo. Paul Lowry via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0

Yo no quiero ser violada.


I do not want to be raped.

So read the signs plastered across walls and doors in the cities of Honduras. Simple black lettering is inscribed beneath a pair of thickly lashed eyes, with the eyebrows above turned downwards in an expression of anger—or, more accurately, indignation—at the dangerous injustices Honduran women face every day.

Honduras has been called the most dangerous place on Earth to be a woman, and with good reason: As of 2015, the Central American nation ranked alongside war-torn countries like Syria and Afghanistan for the highest rates of violent deaths among women. Although the overall murder rate of Honduras, which has long been wracked by drug- and gang-related violence, has declined in recent years, murder remains the second-leading cause of death for women of childbearing age.

In 2014, a high-profile “femicide”—the murder of a woman because she is a woman—rocked the nation and brought its murder rates into the international spotlight. Nineteen-year-old Miss Honduras winner Maria Jose Alvarado, just days from departing for London to compete for the title of Miss World, was brutally murdered and buried in a shallow grave in a riverbank. Authorities surmised that her sister’s boyfriend, 32-year-old Plutarco Ruiz, shot his girlfriend, Sofia Trinidad, before opening fire on Maria Jose as she attempted to flee. The ensuing investigation yielded the sisters’ bodies within a week, but their mother, Teresa Muñoz, believed it would not have happened at all if Maria Jose had not been famous: “Here in Honduras, women aren’t worth anything,” she told ABC News.

In 2013, the year before Maria Jose’s violent death, statistics showed that 636 women were murdered during the year, one every 13.8 hours. Most victims lived in urban areas, particularly San Pedro Sula and the Central District—in fact, 40 percent of all murders of women could be traced to those two areas. Nearly half of all women targeted annually were young, with the 20–24 age range being the most at risk. And murder is far from the only danger facing Honduran women. Rape, assault, and domestic violence are also rampant, and perpetrators enjoy near-total impunity: In 2014, the UN found that 95 percent of sexual violence and femicide cases were never investigated.

San Pedro Sula, a city with high rates of femicide. Gervaldez. CC BY-SA 4.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 2.5, CC BY-SA 2.0, CC BY-SA 1.0

San Pedro Sula, a city with high rates of femicide. Gervaldez. CC BY-SA 4.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 2.5, CC BY-SA 2.0, CC BY-SA 1.0

Honduras’ shocking levels of violence against women can be traced in part to harmful attitudes bubbling below the surface. Suyapa Martínez, a local feminist and co-director of the Center for Women’s Studies—Honduras, points to “machismo,” a Spanish term describing a society built by men “who consider themselves to be the owners of women’s bodies.” In such a society, women have historically lacked political power: Only about half of Honduran women work outside the home, and when they do, they earn just half of what their male colleagues bring in.

Meanwhile, those ostensibly tasked with protecting all Honduran citizens—women included—have done little to mitigate the crisis. A 2015 report from the UN special rapporteur on violence against women concluded that the administration has paid “minimal attention” to gender empowerment and implemented only “ineffective measures” to address social reform. And in many cases, the government inflames the problem by limiting women’s options after sexual violence: Emergency contraception is completely banned, as is abortion, even in the case of rape, incest, or threat to the mother’s life. Women who seek abortion can receive a prison sentence of up to six years. These strict rules stem from the stranglehold of the Catholic and Evangelical churches, who have resisted even minor liberalizations to legislation—even after the UN joined with other human rights groups in 2017 to call for the allowance of abortion in cases of rape, incest, or possibility fatality. To make matters worse, the government is expected to decrease the penalty for violence against women later this year to between one and four years in prison.

Trapped in a repressive society and seeing little hope for a safer future, huge influxes of women and children have embarked on the treacherous journey to America’s southern border. In what the UN has called an “invisible refugee crisis,” women from the Northern Triangle—which includes Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—have been fleeing in droves, with more than half listing violence as their reason for requesting entry to the United States. Lori Adams, director of the U.S.-based Immigration Intervention Project at Sanctuary for Families, told Politico, “Women are leaving with no other option but to flee north, even knowing that the journey itself might be life-threatening, but knowing it’s a near certainty that they will be killed if they remain.”

Migration office in Honduras. KriKri01. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Migration office in Honduras. KriKri01. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Yet even if women survive the trek north, their hopes are often dashed when they reach the border. According to researchers at Syracuse University, the percentage of asylum applicants denied by U.S. immigration courts has been increasing since 2012, reaching 65 percent in 2018. That year, prospects for Hondurans were particularly grim, with judges granting just 21 percent of asylum cases. And as of mid-August, new policies from the Trump administration will privilege green-card applicants—immigrants aiming to become naturalized citizens—who are educated and monied while denying those who are considered likely to rely on government welfare programs. Given the financial dynamics of Latin America, the new rule will almost certainly affect Honduran women seeking safety in the United States. Dario Aguirre, a Denver-based immigration lawyer, told the New York Times that Trump’s policy gives officers carte blanche to deny green cards to many working-class immigrants from less developed countries, such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Thus, another option is ripped from the hands of already desperate Honduran women—and until the U.S. government or Honduran officials enact substantive change, their eyes will stay wide open like the posters on the walls, watching keenly for danger.






TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.

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Zimbabwe’s All Women Anti-Poaching Unit

Conservation becomes a community enriching project.

Photo of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park by  Christine Donaldson  on  Unsplash .

Photo of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park by Christine Donaldson on Unsplash.

The unit is called Akashinga, Shona for The Brave Ones, and it could not be more aptly named.

Founded by Damien Mander, an Austrailian former special forces soldier, Akashinga is a part of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to preserving the Phundundu Wildlife Area. 

Phundundu is a 115-square-mile area in the Zambezi Valley ecosystem which is home to 11,000 elephants and other endangered wildlife. In the past 20 years, frequent poaching has taken its toll on the reserve, resulting in the loss of thousands of elephants. While killing wildlife without a permit is illegal, animal trophies such as bones, tusks, and teeth can be sold on the black market for an amount equivalent to a month’s salary.

According to Akashinga’s website, anti-poaching initiatives often close off “traditional grazing areas, places of burial, worship, water points, food sources and traditional medicine,” making communities feel that endangered plants and animals are more important than their humanity. This resentment can fuel poaching attempts for which offenders can be arrested and sometimes killed. These experiences then reinforce the idea that endangered flora and fauna are of greater importance than the community, creating a cycle of resentment and violence.

To address this phenomenon, Akashinga takes a community-first approach to conservation. By recruiting women from the communities surrounding the Phundundu to serve on the unit, the organization is able to use conservation initiatives to enrich communities. Akashinga’s website describes the effort as having a “community-driven interpersonal focus, working with rather than against the local population for the long-term benefits of their own communities and nature.” To this end, 62% of operational costs are returned to local communities.

In this light, it is significant that the unit is made up entirely of women. According to National Geographic, research shows that in developing countries, women invest 90% of their income in their families, while men only invest 35%. Women are at the grassroots of community life, and when their wages are invested in their families, the entire community proffits.

But this is not the only reason that women are so right for the job. Mander had formerly trained male rangers for years before changing to an all-female model. He said that women are far better rangers; they are less likely to take bribes from poachers, and are skilled at de-escalating high tension situations. In National Geographic he commented that a gun in the hands of a man is a toy, but with a woman it is a tool.

Women also prove to be more resilient. Only three women quit the army-style training necessary to become part of the unit. When Mander was training men, all but three recruits quit after the first day. In National Geographic Mander said that, “we thought we were putting [the women] through hell, but it turns out, they’ve already been through it.”

This resilience is not without cause. Many of the women of Akashinga are victims of abuse, and have experienced their own trauma and exploitation. The BBC writes that Kelly Lyee Chgumbura, a unit member, was raped at seventeen and forced to drop out of school, abandoning her dream of becoming a nurse. She then had to give her baby to her rapist's mother, in accordance with Shona norms where if a mother is unable to provide for her child, the father’s parents become its guardians.

“My goals had been shattered,” she told the BBC, “It was like I couldn’t do anything more with my life.” A few years later, Chgumbura was recruited by her village head to try out for a ranger position. She was selected for the unit, and with a steady career now has a chance to win back custody of her daughter.

Being a ranger provides a sense of purpose as well as an income. “When I manage to stop poachers, I feel accomplished,” Chgumbura told the BBC, “I want to spend my whole life here on this job, arresting poachers and protecting animals.”

Like Chgumbura, most of the unit have faced traumatic experiences and lacked the agency and resources to protect themselves. “Who better to task with protecting exploited animals,” Mander told National Geographic, “than women who had suffered from exploitation?”

Phundundu is the first reserve worldwide to be managed entirely by women, but it will not be the only one for long. According to its website, Akashinga plans to welcome 1,000 new recruits who will protect 20 reserves. They aim to accomplish this by 2025. 






EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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Canadian Inquiry Comes to a Close, Revealing Systematic Mistreatment of Indigenous Women

Three years in the making, the final report calls on authorities to institute a paradigm shift in policing practices.

Ottawa vigil for missing and murdered aboriginal women in 2014. Obert Madondo. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Ottawa vigil for missing and murdered aboriginal women in 2014. Obert Madondo. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Over the past three years, Canada has held 24 hearings and events, engaged with more than 2,380 citizens, and spent $92 million on a massive national inquiry into the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls—who make up less than 4 percent of Canada’s female population but a whopping 16 percent of females killed in the country annually. On June 3, the harrowing process came to a close, culminating in a conclusion as decisive as it is unsettling: The Canadian government and civil society is complicit in perpetrating what amounts to genocide.

Justin Trudeau giving a speech on missing and murdered Indigenous women in 2016. Delusion23 via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

Justin Trudeau giving a speech on missing and murdered Indigenous women in 2016. Delusion23 via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

At the closing ceremony in Gatineau, Quebec, Indigenous youth presented the final report, wrapped in a traditional cloth, to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. All told, the report is over 1,200 pages long and includes 230 recommendations. It describes a historical failure on the part of the police and the criminal justice system, systems that have ignored the concerns of Indigenous women and viewed them “through a lens of pervasive racist and sexist stereotypes”—behavior that has in turn fostered mistrust of the authorities among the Indigenous population. In beginning to mitigate these chronic injustices, the report suggests, authorities should expand Indigenous women’s shelters and improve policing in Indigenous communities; increase the number of Indigenous people on police forces; and empower more Indigenous women to serve on civilian boards that oversee the police.

In addition, it calls for a shift in the criminal code to classify some killings of Indigenous women by spouses with a history of violent abuse as first-degree murder, regardless of premeditation. Addressing the less tangible issue of cultural discrimination, the report also requested that the federal and provincial governments afford Indigenous languages the same status as Canada’s official tongues of English and French.

Regardless of future success in creating a safer and more equitable situation for Indigenous women, helping Canadians understand the historical narrative of violence will remain crucial. As such, the report addresses teachers and post-secondary institutions, asking them to educate the public about missing and murdered Indigenous women and the root causes of their plight, and to bring attention to the state laws, policies, and colonial practices that catalyzed the genocidal conditions. In an interview for Quartz, Carol Couchie, co-chair of the National Aboriginal Council of Midwives, spoke to the lasting effects of structural discrimination: “Family structure has broken up, tribal structure has broken up, leadership has been weakened, the self-esteem has been reduced to on the ground, and these things have all affected our ability to care for young people, to care for women.” Marion Buller, chief commissioner of the inquiry and a retired Indigenous judge, expressed a similar sentiment in her succinct statement to the New York Times: “An absolute paradigm shift is required to dismantle colonialism in Canadian society.”

Woman performing at 2017 National Aboriginal Day in Regina. Ted McGrath. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Woman performing at 2017 National Aboriginal Day in Regina. Ted McGrath. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Trudeau, for his part, guaranteed a thorough review of the report, and committed to creating a National Action Plan “with Indigenous partners to determine next steps.” Yet even with promises of legislative change, some Indigenous Canadians point to harmful attitudes that may undermine the reality of reform on the ground. For instance, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, most of the violent crimes against Indigenous women are perpetrated by people within their own communities—a statistic that, according to Indigenous author Niigaan Sinclair, “has become the linchpin for arguments that murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls are not a Canadian problem, but an Indigenous one.” In a piece for the Winnipeg Free Press, Sinclair notes that former minister of Aboriginal affairs Bernard Valcourt used this argument to refute the prospect of the inquiry in the first place, and addresses the systemic factors that invalidate Valcourt’s position: “Indigenous women and girls do not join the ranks of the murdered and missing because of Indigenous men, but because of the contexts they are in. Most of these are dangerous situations imposed from circumstances brought on by poverty, abusive cycles and systems, and oppression.”

The REDress Project, on display in Winnipeg, serves as a reminder of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Ted McGrath. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The REDress Project, on display in Winnipeg, serves as a reminder of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Ted McGrath. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Still, the very existence of the report and the promises of action it has engendered are cause for optimism, however cautious it might be. In a piece for The Conversation, Margaret Moss describes her disappointment as an American Indian woman who recently moved to Canada and has observed the same racism in the United States’ northern neighbor as she did back home. Yet her viewpoint as an American also lends her perspective and a sense of hope. “[C]ompared to the lack of moral outrage in the U.S. on this issue, I am [made] hopeful by the very fact that in Canada, after much activism, such a committee was formed and a report of the findings were released with a bold statement,” Moss writes. “Maybe this will shake people out of complacency.”





TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.









In India, Grassroots Initiatives Work to Undo the Period Taboo

For many Indians, lack of access to menstrual products is compounded by entrenched societal stigma. Across the country, women are beginning to make a change.

A sign in Bali, Indonesia, demonstrates stigmatization of menstruation in the Global South. dominique bergeron. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A sign in Bali, Indonesia, demonstrates stigmatization of menstruation in the Global South. dominique bergeron. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

For most people with periods in the Western world, menstruation is something of an afterthought—annoying and sometimes painful, but easily dealt with, and far from debilitating. In parts of the Global South, however, “that time of the month” is not only a serious health concern and financial impediment but also a source of profound social and cultural tension. Over the past two years, grassroots activists have brought increased attention to the plight of menstruating women in India, and begun to envision a future in which well-being and participation in society is not dictated by one’s reproductive cycle.

Shameful attitudes toward menstruation in India are deeply ingrained, and, especially in rural areas, can be actively harmful to women of all ages. Indian women experiencing their periods can be banned from entering the kitchen and preparing food, separated from family members, and removed from religious ceremonies, sometimes on the grounds of theistic tradition: In 2018, many Indian men were outraged at a ruling by the country’s Supreme Court allowing women of menstruating age to visit Sabarimala, a Hindu temple in Kerala dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, who is seen in traditional mythology to be disgusted by the concept of female fertility. Indignation at the ruling reached a peak in January 2019, when one person died and dozens were injured in protests against the judgment.

Equally dangerous, and highly imbricated with traditional views of menstruation, is the pervasive lack of access to sanitary products, which are crucial to keeping women clean and safe during their periods. An estimated 70 percent of Indian women are unable to afford such products, with 300 million resorting to unhygienic options such as newspapers, dry leaves, and unwashed rags. Menstruation is also a key driver of school dropouts among girls, 23 percent of whom leave their schooling behind upon reaching puberty.

Cost barriers can prevent Indian women from acquiring menstrual products. Marco Verch. CC BY 2.0

Cost barriers can prevent Indian women from acquiring menstrual products. Marco Verch. CC BY 2.0

In a sociocultural landscape where natural bodily functions are affecting the human dignity of people with periods, education, outreach, and access are crucial. In February 2018, Indian news outlet Daijiworld reported on one person working toward these goals: the so-called “Pad Woman” of Manguluru, who has been leading a group of young students in her southwestern port to create awareness of menstrual hygiene. The Pad Woman, Prameela Rao, is the founder of non-profit Kalpa Trust, which offers students at the Kavoor government First Grade College materials to manufacture sanitary pads for women in rural areas. The completed pads are distributed free of charge to the colonies of Gurupur, Malali, Bajpe, and Shakthinagar, obviating the need for women to purchase prohibitively expensive mainstream menstrual products. The pads are made from donated cotton clothing, which the students wash, iron, cut, and stitch to create the final product.

In the western state of Gujarat, an organization known as the Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP) is directly targeting period taboos among rural communities. Activists Manjula and Sudha told the Indian magazine The New Leam that, for the girls they have educated in the villages of Karamdi Chingaryia and Jariyavada, confusion and fear regarding menstruation have given way to confidence and clarity. For the AKSRP, which emphasizes gender equality and the societal participation of women, offering rural villagers the ability to make informed choices about their own menstrual health is key. As of The New Leam’s report in April 2019, the non-profit had reached about 60 Indian villages, providing information about sanitary pads of various designs, longevities, and price points.

While pads are a far more hygienic choice than rags or newspaper, they are not the only option: Back in Manguluru, two German volunteers have initiated a menstrual cup project known as “a period without shame.” In their pilot run, Nanett Bahler and Paulina Falky distributed about 70 menstrual cups free of charge to Indian women, as well as leading workshops on effective use for recipients. The cups, which are made of silicone and emptied around twice per day during one’s period, can be used for up to 10 years, making them a hygienic, eco-friendly, and potentially more affordable option for people of all ages.

Manguluru, where Indian and German activists are working to provide menstrual products. Aleksandr Zykov. CC BY-SA 2.0

Manguluru, where Indian and German activists are working to provide menstrual products. Aleksandr Zykov. CC BY-SA 2.0

Such grassroots efforts have been instrumental in chipping away at stigma among Indians in certain cities and villages, but broader change is unlikely without widespread publicity. One potential avenue for increased awareness is the newly released documentary Period. End of Sentence., which follows rural Indian women in their battle against period stigma. To create the film, Iranian-American director Rayka Zehtabchi visited small villages outside of Delhi to inquire after women’s menstrual health, and shot extensive footage of women who have learned to create their own sanitary products. The diligent pad-makers, many of whom are housewives who have never before held a full-time job, sell their creations to locals in their area, educating women on proper use and convincing shop owners to stock the products. By the end of the time span covered by the documentary, the women had set up a factory and manufactured 18,000 pads, earning economic self-sufficiency for themselves and an Academy Award nomination for Zehtabchi.


The work of these Delhi entrepreneurs, along with that of the AKSRP and Pad Woman Prameela, has made a positive difference for countless people—but, according to Mumbai-based journalist and author Puja Changoiwala, education and access must rise above the grassroots level and reach the legislative in order to create enduring change in attitudes toward menstruation. In a piece for Self, Changoiwala suggests that the Indian government should distribute free pads and launch an “aggressive nation-wide awareness program,” engaging celebrities and the press to address the dire consequences of long-held stigma. For anyone in India with a period, such a moment cannot come soon enough.






TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.








Revolutionizing Ethical Travel for Women: Meet Purposeful Nomad

Native alpacas graze near the Chimborazo Volcano during Purposeful Nomad’s trip to Ecuador where the group learns about local non-profit, Paqocha’s, mission to restore alpaca populations and meets the community who sheers, cleans, and spins the fleece. Caitlin Murray. Purposeful Nomad.

Native alpacas graze near the Chimborazo Volcano during Purposeful Nomad’s trip to Ecuador where the group learns about local non-profit, Paqocha’s, mission to restore alpaca populations and meets the community who sheers, cleans, and spins the fleece. Caitlin Murray. Purposeful Nomad.

When Caitlin Murray met Alejandro and Agostina, conservationists and owners of Ecuadorian Mashpi Artisanal Chocolate Farm, she’d been living in South America for two years after a solo trip that inspired her to stay.  They showed her how their commitment to regenerating Ecuador’s cloud forest focuses on sustainable farming practices and educating others. They also gave her a taste of their handcrafted Arriba Cocoa bar that won first place in 2016’s International Chocolate Awards.  Inspired by their story and commitment to the environment, Caitlin wanted to bring others to their farm.

Volunteering abroad, solo backpacking, and working in the tourism industry, Caitlin realized in order to access culture and be socially responsible, she must find measurable ways to directly give back to local communities. Driven to create opportunities for women to collectively experience this, she founded Purposeful Nomad. Purposeful Nomad is a travel company that crafts deeper, safer, more ethically responsible travel for women.  They attract women from a variety of backgrounds and ages seeking a different kind of experience.  “I wanted to use tourism as something positive in the world and not just a consumerism ‘let’s take my life and emulate my life somewhere else’ ethos,” Caitlin explains.

Alejandro and Agostina, conservationists and owners of Ecuadorian Mashpi Artisanal Chocolate Farm educate Purposeful Nomad travelers about sustainable farming while sharing their award-winning handcrafted Arriba Cocoa bars. Jessica Scranton. Purposeful Nomad.

Alejandro and Agostina, conservationists and owners of Ecuadorian Mashpi Artisanal Chocolate Farm educate Purposeful Nomad travelers about sustainable farming while sharing their award-winning handcrafted Arriba Cocoa bars. Jessica Scranton. Purposeful Nomad.

Two years after her visit to Mashpi Farm, Caitlin launched her first women-only sustainable social impact travel program in Ecuador - called Food, Farm, Fleece.  The 14-day itinerary integrates local experience and education.  Early on, the group meets with grassroots organization founders of Paqocha, Felipe Segovia and Lorena Perez to learn about their efforts to revive the alpaca population.  Next, they learn from Ecuadorian women how to shear, clean and spin the fleece with the opportunity to purchase handwoven wares directly from the makers.

Going through a transitional time in her life, Sara Carter signed up with Purposeful Nomad to “fulfill her desire to immerse herself in Ecuador's culture, food, and people, while affording her the chance to do it with like-minded women.” Within a few short years, Purposeful Nomad has grown to eight new locations and diversified itineraries - including Cuba, Morocco, India, and Guatemala.

Purposeful Nomad Founder, Caitlin Murray, (second from right) and women’s sustainable travel group gather after a village homestay and camel trek in the Thar desert, India. Jessica Scranton. Purposeful Nomad.

Purposeful Nomad Founder, Caitlin Murray, (second from right) and women’s sustainable travel group gather after a village homestay and camel trek in the Thar desert, India. Jessica Scranton. Purposeful Nomad.

According to the World Tourism Organization as explained in CNBC’s article “Eco-Friendly Tourism” eco-travel is expected to climb to 1.8 billion by 2030.  Since 2000, worldwide destination seeking has jumped by more than 50 percent. As socially responsible travel continues to grow “we make sure our dollars stay local.  We’re not a luxury tour company,” says Caitlin. According to McColl of Ethical Traveler, the best way to travel sustainability is to get to know the local people so the “money stays in the local economy, rather than getting extracted by foreign corporations … as a bonus, it’s a more genuine experience, and a better chance to connect with local people.” Purposeful Nomad prioritizes local from lodging and cuisine to hiring knowledgeable guides.  Caitlin builds partnerships by talking to locals and finding ways to help. She doesn’t assume to know what a place needs. She asks. Would you like to work with us?  How can we help?  

According to MarketWatch, more than 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation each year, paying more than $2 billion annually to help out while traveling.  Nevertheless, it brings into question how much lasting impact they are generating.

Purposeful Nomad focuses on tapping into established grassroots organizations that are already happening on the ground and are a proven success to help measure their impact. “Bigger volunteer organizations, can create incredible infrastructures in developing countries, but once they pull out, the schools are empty.  We don’t want that,” Caitlin explains.

With the mounting popularity of conscious travel, terms like responsible, sustainable and ethical can often be overused or misused in the tourism industry.  Epicure & Culture contributor, Daniela Frendo explains, “In the travel industry, greenwashing refers to tour operators which make eco-trips seem more sustainable and ethical than they actually are.”  Travelers can mitigate this by asking travel companies whether they employ local people and buy locally-sourced products as well as learn more about how invested the company actually is in community-based projects. Aware of greenwashing, Caitlin says, “If you take shortcuts, people are going to know.” She thoroughly vets organizations and individuals to ensure there is transparency in where the money goes.

Back at the Masphi Farm, Alejandro and Agostina’s passion for conservation and keeping the Ecuadorian traditions of the cacao crop alive balances well with dishing out delicious artisanal chocolate.  So, for your next trip, consider traveling with a purpose—it doesn’t get much sweeter than that.





JULIA KRAMER is a New York-based writer and avid traveler who addresses systems changes to social challenges through storytelling and community building.  When she’s not writing or on the road, you will find her cooking something from her urban garden or hiking.  Read more of her articles on travel and social impact at julia-roos.com.

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#MeToo Movement Reaches South Korea, Shaking the Foundations of a Society in Flux

In a deeply patriarchal culture, feminist activists face constant setbacks and scrutiny.

Park Geun-hye meeting with former President Barack Obama in 2014. Republic of Korea/Jeon Han. CC BY-SA 2.0

Park Geun-hye meeting with former President Barack Obama in 2014. Republic of Korea/Jeon Han. CC BY-SA 2.0

In 2017, TIME Magazine named “The Silence Breakers” as its Person of the Year, marking the influence of the #MeToo movement and commending the women who have shattered decades of complacency regarding sexual harassment. Yet despite the movement’s place at the forefront of the American cultural zeitgeist, the effects of #MeToo are far from confined to the United States. On the other side of the globe, in South Korea, generations of women—long oppressed by the sexism that has proliferated in Korean society—are now uniting to push back against gender discrimination and question the influence of the patriarchy.

A glance at the numbers reveals the gender bias deeply embedded in Korean culture. On average, women earn 37 percent less than their male colleagues, creating the most severe gap among the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Countrywide, women account for only 11 percent of managerial positions and 2.1 percent of corporate boards, in comparison to the OECD averages of 31 percent and 19 percent, respectively. In its glass ceiling index, The Economist ranks South Korea as the worst developed nation for working women.

The problem is a self-perpetuating one, as female role models in positions of power are few. In 2013, Park Geun-hye became Korea’s first female president—but far from sharing in her victory, women’s rights organizations strongly opposed her candidacy, recalling her father’s 18-year dictatorship. Only two of Park’s 19 ministers were women, and the aspects of her platform that did promote women’s rights and access were not much more progressive than those of the male presidential hopefuls she defeated. More important, Park lost all credibility when she became embroiled in an extortion scandal in 2016. In April 2018, she was found guilty of 16 out of 18 charges relating to abuse of power and coercion and sentenced to 24 years in jail.

February of that year witnessed an incident that encapsulated Korea’s suspicious attitude towards women’s liberation: Singer Son Naeun of the all-female group Apink was attacked for posting a photo on Instagram of her holding a phone case with the words “Girls can do anything.” In a culture that responds to even such minor displays of feminism with scorn and shame, sexual abuse toward women often goes unnoticed, and survivors who try to make their claims public are met with mockery.

However, despite these hostile attitudes, #MeToo principles in South Korea are finally gaining traction, and Korean women’s accounts of sexual abuse are beginning to garner at least a modicum of respect in the public eye. In January 2018, attorney Seo Ji-hyun—who had experienced years of sexual harassment at the hands of Ahn Tae-geun, the former chief of the Seoul prosecutors’ office—came forward with her allegations on the nightly news, precipitating Ahn’s two-year prison sentence for abuse of power. (He claimed not to remember the incident.) The next month, Choi Young-mi published a poem effectively accusing 85-year-old poet Ko Un of molestation, coerced sex, and harassment. The piece, titled “Monster,” has since gone viral.

The ensuing wave of sexual abuse allegations reached into the hundreds, with presidential hopeful Ahn Hee-jung and award-winning movie director Kim Ki-duk among the accused. Throughout 2018, both traditional and social media networks grew increasingly saturated with talk of societal change, and issues of gender discrimination entered public discourse. Online profiles owned by male and female Koreans alike sported the English-language hashtags #MeToo and #WithYou.

In March 2018, the burgeoning movement reached a watershed moment: a marathon protest in downtown Seoul, during which nearly 200 women publicly shared their stories of sexual harassment for 2018 consecutive minutes. In May, 15,000 people turned out to Daehangno in central Seoul to attend a rally for government accountability on sex crimes; a follow-up in July brought around 60,000, and continuing protests have earned a nickname that translates as “Uncomfortable Courage.”

Gwanghwamun Gate, at the edge of the plaza where almost 200 women shared their experiences with sexual assault as part of a massive protest. Dickson Phua. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Gwanghwamun Gate, at the edge of the plaza where almost 200 women shared their experiences with sexual assault as part of a massive protest. Dickson Phua. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Younger generations have been at the forefront of the movement, and some have pushed for change specifically within the culture of schools. Using the hashtag #SchoolMeToo, students at more than 65 Korean schools have come forward with allegations of verbal and physical sexual abuse by teachers. Their stories led to several criminal investigations, and in February of this year, a former middle school teacher was sentenced to a year and a half in prison on charges of repeated assault. In response to the multiple allegations, hundreds of female students turned out for a march in downtown Seoul, which culminated in a gathering outside the presidential palace to protest inadequate responses to abuse.

The Blue House, Seoul’s presidential residence, where students gathered to protest the lack of response to sexual abuse. Julio Martínez. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Blue House, Seoul’s presidential residence, where students gathered to protest the lack of response to sexual abuse. Julio Martínez. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On the legislative side, there are signs of incremental change. As of September 2018, maintenance staff in Seoul are now required to check public restrooms daily for hidden cameras, which are often used to secretly record footage of women that is later sold to porn websites. The administration of President Moon Jae-in, who was elected following Park’s impeachment, has announced extensions to the statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases, and a process for anonymous reporting of sexual assault crimes.

Despite progress, activists continue to face persecution. For instance, in the city of Gwangju, where 11 teachers and the principal at one school were criminally charged with sexual abuse, a newspaper editorial questioned the value of the movement and accused students of undermining teachers’ authority. Progressive politicians, such as Shin Ji-ye, a 28-year-old Green Party leader who ran for mayor on a feminist platform last June and finished impressively in fourth, may usher in more substantial shifts. For now, isolated policy decisions and grassroots uprisings are chipping away at the inequities entrenched in Korean ways of life—and #MeToo, from one side of the world to another, continues to stake a claim against centuries of injustice.







TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.

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Three Things We Can Learn From Contemporary Muslim Women’s Fashion

Ilhan Omar, a Somali American, who was elected from Minnesota’s 5th congressional district, will be the first woman in U.S. Congress to wear a hijab.  AP Photo/Jim Mone, File

Ilhan Omar, a Somali American, who was elected from Minnesota’s 5th congressional district, will be the first woman in U.S. Congress to wear a hijab. AP Photo/Jim Mone, File

Major art museums have realized there is much to learn from clothing that is both religiously coded and fashion forward.

Earlier this year the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a fashion exhibition inspired by the Catholic faith titled “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and Catholic Imagination.” With more than 1.6 million visitors, it was the most popular exhibit in the Met’s history.

And now the de Young Museum of San Francisco has the first major exhibit devoted to the Islamic fashion scene. “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” displays 80 swoon-worthy ensembles – glamorous gowns, edgy streetwear, conceptual couture – loosely organized by region and emphasizing distinct textile traditions. This exhibit is a bold statement of cultural appreciation during a time of heightened anti-Muslim rhetoric.

In studying how Muslim women dress for over a decade, I realized a deeper understanding of Muslim women’s clothing can challenge popular stereotypes about Islam. Here are three takeaways.

1. Modesty is not one thing

While there are scattered references to modest dress in the sacred written sources of Islam, these religious texts do not spend a lot of time discussing the ethics of Muslim attire. And once I started to pay attention to how Muslims dress, I quickly realized that modesty does not look the same everywhere.

I traveled to Iran, Indonesia and Turkey for my research on Muslim women’s clothing. The Iranian penal code requires women to wear proper Islamic clothingin public, although what that entails is never defined. The morality police harass and arrest women who they think expose too much hair or skin. Yet even under these conditions of intense regulation and scrutiny, women wear a remarkable range of styles – from edgy ripped jeans and graphic tees to bohemian loose flowy separates.

Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation in the world, but Indonesian women did not wear head coverings or modest clothing until about 30 years ago. Today local styles integrate crystal and sequin embellishments. Popular fabric choices include everything from pastel chiffon to bright batik, which is promoted as the national textile.

When it comes to Turkey, for much of the last century authorities discouraged Muslim women from wearing pious fashion, claiming these styles were “unmodern” because they were not secular. That changed with the rise of the Islamic middle class, when Muslim women began to demand an education, to work outside the home and to wear modest clothing and a headscarf as they did so. Today local styles tend to be tailored closely to the body, with high necklines and low hemlines and complete coverage of the hair.

A stunning range of Muslim fashions are found here in the United States as well, reflecting the diversity of its approximately 3.45 million Muslims. Fifty-eight percent of Muslim adults in the U.S. are immigrantscoming from some 75 countries. And U.S.-born Muslims are diverse as well. For instance, more than half of Muslims whose families have been in the U.S. for at least three generations are black.

This diversity provides the opportunity for hybrid identities, which are displayed through clothing styles.


This diversity provides the opportunity for hybrid identities, which are displayed through clothing styles.

2. Muslim women don’t need saving

Many non-Muslims see Muslim women’s clothing and headscarves as a sign of oppression. It is true that a Muslim woman’s clothing choices are shaped by her community’s ideas about what it means to be a good Muslim. But this situation is not unlike that for non-Muslim women, who likewise have to negotiate expectations concerning their behavior.

In my book, I introduce readers to a number of women who use their clothing to express their identity and assert their independence. Tari is an Indonesian college student who covers her head at her parents’ objections. Her parents worry that a headscarf will make it harder for Tari to get a job after graduation. But for Tari, whose friends all cover their hair, her clothing is the primary way she communicates her personal style and her Muslim identity.

Nur, who majored in communications at Istanbul Commerce University, dresses modestly but is highly critical of the pressure she sees the apparel industry putting on Muslim women to buy brand-name clothing. For her, Muslim style does not have to come with a high price tag.

Leila works for the Iranian government and considers her off-duty clothing choices a form of civil disobedience. Monday through Friday she wears dark colors and long baggy overcoats. But on the weekends she pushes the limits of acceptability with tight-fitting outfits and heavy makeup – sartorial choices that might get her in trouble with the morality police. She accepts the legal obligation to wear Islamic clothing in public, but asserts her right to decide what that entails.

Designers have also used clothing to protest issues affecting their communities. The de Young exhibit, for example, includes a scarf by designer Céline Semaan to protest against Trump’s travel ban. The scarf features a NASA satellite image of several of the countries whose citizens are denied entry to the U.S , overlaid with the word “Banned.”

3. Muslims contribute to mainstream society

A 2017 Pew survey showed that 50 percent of Americans say Islam is not a part of mainstream society. But as Muslim models and Muslim designers are increasingly recognized by the fashion world, the misperception of Muslims as outsiders has the potential to change.

Muslim models are spokespersons for top cosmetic brands, walk the catwalk for high end designers and are featured in print ads for major labels.

Today clothing inspired by Islamic aesthetics is marketed to all consumers, not just Muslim ones. Take the most recent collection of British Muslim designer Hana Tajima for Uniqlo. In its promotional materials, the global casual wear retailer described the garments as “culturally sensitive and extremely versatile,” clothing for cosmopolitan women of all backgrounds.

To be hip today is to dress in culturally inclusive ways, and this includes modest styles created by Muslim designers and popularized by Muslim consumers. Fashion makes it clear that Muslims are not only part of mainstream society, they are contributors to it.

LIZ BUCAR is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Northeastern University.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION

Women Take the Mic on Nsawya FM

Saudi feminists are giving voice to obstacles against women’s rights in their new radio show.

Illustration depicting the impact of restricted women’s rights because of male guardianship.  (Source: Human Rights Watch. Saudi Arabia: ‘Unofficial Guardianship Rules Banned. © 2016 by Human Rights Watch

Illustration depicting the impact of restricted women’s rights because of male guardianship.

(Source: Human Rights Watch. Saudi Arabia: ‘Unofficial Guardianship Rules Banned. © 2016 by Human Rights Watch

On July 27th, eleven women gave life to Nsawya FM, or Feminism FM, with a simple tweet stating their aim to be the “voice of the silent majority.” Since then, their radio broadcasts have detailed stories of women’s rights abuse with just a laptop, editing software (to disguise the voices of the women sharing the stories), and a microphone. According to Ashtar, a pseudonym for one of the women involved, “the voice of women is revolution.”

And women have been raising their voices. Of the 6.3 million Saudis on Twitter in 2016, 40% were women as found in a study by the Rutgers’s Center for Women’s Global Leadership Report. The same study supported the importance of Twitter in Saudi society by stating that it was the “most effective and influential social network.” This is in part because political leaders monitor Twitter, making political activity more likely to be seen on the social media platform.

Still the potential to be blocked by the government on Twitter—which Nsawya FM states happened temporarily—is why they have chosen the radio: they do not want to risk losing the “archive of [their] thoughts.”

Nsawya FM’s archive consists of submissions by Saudi women of their stories, opinions, and criticisms on women’s rights, such as domestic abuse. The first stories told were of Hanan Shahri and Sara. Both stories highlight the effects of male guardianship: a system where a women’s crucial decisions—including travel, marriage, and studying abroad—are made by a male figure. These guardians can be fathers, husbands, brothers, or sons.

Shahri’s story was widely reported in 2013 after she killed herself following a beating by her brother and uncle and their refusal to allow her to marry her fiancé. Then there is Sara, a university student whose dream to marry her fiancé from Yemen, following approval from her parents, was ended when her brother shot her.

So it is no surprise that women began turning to Twitter to push back against guardianship. In 2016 they coined #AbolishGuardianship to highlight abuse and rally support against it. Within two months, 14,000 signatures had been collected for an online petition against guardianship. Although gradual changes have occurred for women, most notably the ability to drive, male guardianship is grounded in religion and cuts across all socio-economic classes.

But to these 11 women producers and their 2500 audience members there is hope that civilian law might one day replace the Islamic law. They are bringing the stories traditionally protected under male guardianship to light and public criticism.

“Of course [they] are scared,” as Ashtar has also been quoted saying. But their fear is driven by a determination for equal rights. For them it begins with placing the women’s narrative before the public’s eyes: Nsawya FM is making a statement on behalf of Saudi women to the world that they exist.

 

 

TERESA NOWALK is a student at the University of Virginia studying anthropology and history. In her free time she loves traveling, volunteering in the Charlottesville community, and listening to other people’s stories. She does not know where her studies will take her, but is certain writing will be a part of whatever the future has in store.

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INDIA: In Her Shoes

Rani is a 17-year-old in Mumbai. Like most girls her age, she likes Instagram, boys and good food. But Rani is also the daughter of a sex worker, and she grew up hearing, “a whore’s daughter can only be a whore.” Follow filmmakers Doree Simon and Caz Tanner Film as they explore women’s empowerment efforts around the world in a new original series, In Her Shoes. Episode one features a-day-in-the-life of Rani — who is transcending her circumstances and helping her community along the way.

After the Niqab: What Life Is like for French Women Who Remove the Veil

Author provided

Author provided

Islamic headscarves and veils continue to be the subject of intense debate in Europe. Countries’ approaches toward the burqa and niqab, which cover the face, range from tolerance in the UK to an outright ban in France. Reactions of Muslim women to restrictions have varied, including protests by some, reluctant acceptance by others and also support for bans.

But what happens when a woman who has worn a niqab, sometimes for years, makes the decision to leave it behind?

Hanane and Alexia – whose names are pseudonyms to protect their identity – were both born in France. Hanane grew up in a non-practicing Muslim family, while Alexia converted to Islam at age 22. For five years they both wore a niqab. Hanane began in 2009, just before France banned the full-face veil, while Alexia adopted it later. Once ardent defenders of the right to wear the niqab, both women have now completely abandoned it. But the transition took place gradually and was accompanied by a growing distance from extreme Salafist ideology.

Hanane today. Agnès De Féo

Hanane today. Agnès De Féo

‘Start living again’

On January 10, during the New Year’s discount sales in France, Alexia and I met near Paris’ Gare du Nord train station. She wanted to buy clothes and “start living again”. In the first shop she bought four slim pairs of pants and a trim jacket. She then tried out some Nepalese clothes designed for Western tastes, including a colourful jacket and pants with huge bell bottoms.

As she came out of the dressing room, Alexia gauged herself in front of the mirror: “It’s really me, I finally feel like myself again after years of being locked up.” With her hair brushing her face, she looked like a modern woman, fully alive. I was impressed with her metamorphosis: it’s hard to imagine that she wore a niqab for five years and was one of the most radical women I’d ever met.

I met Alexia in August 2011 in the context of my research on the full-length veil during a demonstration by the Salafist group Forsane Alizza(literally Knights of the Pride) in a city near Paris. She was wearing a niqab and presented herself as the wife of one of the group’s leaders.

Event of the Salafist group Forsane Alizza in August, 2011. At the centre is its leader, Mohamed Achamlane, who was jailed in 2015 for criminal conspiracy in connection with a terrorist enterprise. Agnès De Féo, Author provided

Event of the Salafist group Forsane Alizza in August, 2011. At the centre is its leader, Mohamed Achamlane, who was jailed in 2015 for criminal conspiracy in connection with a terrorist enterprise. Agnès De Féo, Author provided

Alexia remembers that time:

We considered all Muslim supporters of the French Republic to be unbelievers. We were doing the takfir (excommunication) against those who did not practice like us. We were opposed to the taghout (idolatry in the broad sense), i.e., the state and institutions. We defined ourselves as ghûlat, which means ‘extremists’ in Arabic.

Estimates of the number of women who wear the niqab vary widely, from a few hundred to several thousand. In terms of even France’s Muslim population the percentage is tiny.

Hanane, whom I met on the side-lines of a demonstration in front of the French National Assembly, 2010. Agnès De Féo, Author provided

Hanane, whom I met on the side-lines of a demonstration in front of the French National Assembly, 2010. Agnès De Féo, Author provided

‘The niqab was protecting me’

I’ve known Hanane even longer than Alexia. We met during a January 2010 demonstration of women in niqab at the Place de la République in Paris and then in front of the National Assembly. She and others were protesting a proposed measure that would outlaw concealing one’s face in public.

At the beginning of 2017, Hanane reached out to ask me to help her write a book about her life. In the book she’d like to write, Hanane doesn’t want to denounce the niqab, but to tell the story of the rapes she says were repeatedly inflicted by her father-in-law. To her, they help explain her involvement in Salafism.

Religion brought a lot that helped me escape from the trauma of rape. I was 19 to 20 years old when I started wearing the niqab, I took it off when I was 25. The further I went, the more I wanted to cover myself. The niqab protected me, I liked hiding from men. I could see them, but they couldn’t see me.

Unlike Alexia, who decided on her own to begin wearing a veil, Hanane remembers the influence of her social circle at the time:

We were a bunch of girlfriends and wore niqab almost all at the same time. In our group the earliest was Ayat Boumédiène, who adopted it more than two years before the law. At first everything was normal with her, and then she started to organise gatherings to encourage us to take up arms. It was her husband, Ahmadi Coulibaly, who turned her head – he was low-key until he went to jail. Ayat wanted to introduce me to a man she said I should marry, she really pushed hard. He was later imprisoned for murder. Thank goodness I didn’t give in – I’d be in Syria today.

On January 9, 2015, Ahmadi Coulibaly attacked the Hyper Cacher market near Paris. Boumédiène left Paris one week earlier, and was spotted at the Istanbul airport. She remains at large. Coulibaly killed five people during his attack and died when the police assaulted the grocery store in which he was holding hostages.

Trailer of the film Forbidden Veil, directed by Agnès De Féo and produced by Marc Rozenblum, 2017.

‘I felt like I was getting out of jail’

When France banned full-length veils in 2010, some of the women who wore the niqab switched to the jilbab, which covers the whole body except the face, while others gave in to public pressure and ceased wearing it. Both Alexia and Hanane are different: they say they’ve turned the page completely.

Alexia has even become a fierce opponent of the Islamic veil and Salafism. She continues to define herself as a Muslim but reads the texts with a critical eye. Hanane admits that she has become less diligent in her rituals: “I often skip prayers or make them late. Some days I don’t even have time to pray. When I wore the niqab I was a little more regular, even though I was often late.”

Both say they’ve put aside the more radical texts they once favoured, and no longer frequent fundamentalist websites. But this process didn’t happen all at once – it took several months. Alexia says she decided to remove the niqab on the advice of the man who shared her life at the time. A convert to Islam and Salafism, he was a supporter of conservative dress for women, but nonetheless suggested she cease wearing the niqab:

When he saw my physical condition, he asked me to remove the niqab – he feared for my health. I had worn it to please Allah, but because of the lack of sunlight I wasn’t synthesising vitamin D any more – my health was failing. I followed his advice, but it’s been long and hard.

Alexia remembers:

When I took the niqab off, I felt like I was getting out of jail. But that doesn’t mean I was released – I still felt bad. It takes years to get by and I haven’t finished cleaning my head yet.

Hanane abandoned her veil after the attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015 because she feared for her safety, facing more and more insults in the street. She said the hardest part has been the exclusion from her social circle:

Since I removed my veil, many of my Muslim sisters no longer want to talk to me. I find them stuck-up and unfair, because anyone can choose to take off their veil. A few rare ones talk to me, but it’s not like it used to be.

For a long time Alexia would put her veil back on when returning to her old neighbourhood in northeast Paris where social and religious conservatism is strong in certain communities. Then she finally changed her life entirely.

My life began to change when I enrolled in a gym, which allowed me to get out of the Salafist social networks that were my only source of socialisation before. Then I got a job and then I finally said goodbye to my past.

And it was at this job that she met the man whom she would marry. He is not Muslim and the civil marriage took place at city hall, an unthinkable choice for this woman who once hated French institutions.

Alexia visits a booth at the annual salon for French Muslims at Le Bourget, north of Paris, 2017. Agnès De Féo, Author provided

Alexia visits a booth at the annual salon for French Muslims at Le Bourget, north of Paris, 2017. Agnès De Féo, Author provided

A bitter taste

In hindsight, neither Alexia nor Hanane spoke of their “exit” from the niqab as a liberation. Instead, the experience has left them with a bitter taste. They say they were convinced at some point in their lives of the importance of wearing a full-length veil: Alexia believed that she was achieving Muslim perfection and giving meaning to her life – she imagined meeting the pious and virtuous man who would save her from her life as a single mother. For Hanane, the goal was to heal the wounds of an adolescence torn apart by family trauma and foster care.

Alexia now feels that this period cost her years of her life and expresses anger at the propaganda coming from Saudi Arabia. She blames the entire system that indoctrinated her, even though she acknowledges it was, in a sense, voluntary. According to her, the Islamic State benefits from the naivety of those who believe they are committed to Salafism for legitimate reasons.

Even if they’ve both renounced the niqab, neither Hanane nor Alexia support the 2010 ban. Hanane told me recently: “The law is counterproductive. The only way out is by yourself. The ban will never convince any woman to take it off.” Alexia has the same reaction, saying that the law that has led some women to cut themselves off from society and that some might adopt it as a rebellious gesture.

Testimonies of those who’ve chosen to “leave the niqab behind” are rare. The number of women who have adopted it is extremely low, and the ones who then choose to renounce it must often sever their old relationships and adopt what is in many ways a new identity – they change their e-mail addresses, phone numbers and move on completely. For them the full-length veil has become something firmly in the past, representative of a transitional stage in their lives.

Translated from the original French by Leighton Walter Kille.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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AGNÉS DE FÉO

Agnès De Féo is co-founder of Sasana Productions and teaches at the journalism school CFPJ.